Ask the Expert – Dr Jonathan Griffin (Fulham FC)

I was a classic early maturer, becoming a stand-out junior athlete across a range of sports, competing internationally

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Dr Jonathan Griffin is the Head of Exercise Science at Fulham FC Academy and a former lecturer of mine at St Mary’s University.

  1. Give us a bit of background on yourself… (sporting career, qualifications, coaching experience)?

I was a classic early maturer, becoming a stand-out junior athlete across a range of sports, competing internationally, and eventually settling on rugby through my post-University sporting career where I played with London Irish, Norwich and Blackheath, at what would now be equivalent to the Championship and National 1 level. I completed a Sport & Exercise Science degree at Brighton University back in 1995, a MSc in Exercise Physiology at Loughborough University 8 years later, and started a PhD 9 years after that, finishing Feb 2017.

I have been coaching for over 20 years. I began with myself, reading all manner of training magazines and articles in all manner of publications as it was pre-internet and I lived in rural Ireland so Runners World and the like were my sources of information. My father was and is still a very successful race horse trainer, so I learned about periodisation and high-low programming from an early age without actually really understanding it. I then helped coach some friends and gained success which together inspired me to study at University, where went to the UK. At the University we had a group of enthusiastic modern pentathletes who all worked together to train each other. This included Kate Allenby, bronze medal Sydney Olympics, who even then had a big impact on my training process. However, it was John Hillier, GB throws coach, who really kick started my S&C career. I lived around the corner from Blackheath RFC and they had a concrete shed in which there was a bunch of lifting equipment. This was 1998, and the only other gyms were steroid-using meat head gyms, so pretty much every high-end athlete who wanted to lift and lived in the SE London/Kent region came to be coached by John. I worked with world champion powerlifters, Olympic throwers, youth/Schools/U20 international T&F athletes, serious rugby players. I was uber enthusiastic, reading lots, visiting practitioners, where John would let me coach and programme for certain athletes and I learned via osmosis 3 night per week for 5 years, non-stop, till I left for Loughborough! I owe John a huge debt of gratitude for all he taught me. After that I coached at Powerbase in Loughborough where I was Assistant Rugby Coach with the men’s and women’s rugby team, then went to Stanford University (USA) as Director of Rugby for 7 years and wrote the programmes for all our international players (learning from the phenomenal world class practitioners working within the Athletics Department), returning to the UK and working at the St Mary’s Uni facility training a range of athletes including a premiership footballer, female international rugby players and a para-triathlete to mention several. This is where I really began to mentor young practitioners which is a real passion of mine.

2) What has been your biggest influence in your practice?

Difficult question as its usually relative to a point in your practitioner timeline, and as such big influences evolve regularly. Broadly I would count the following as game-changers: Simon Sinek’s TEDx talk on the Golden Circle, along with the post-RFU certification mentoring I have been fortunate to receive, detailing the importance of and process for developing an athlete centered approach; reading the Russian texts, regularly; Mobilitywod, with Kelly Starret empowering athletes, weekend warriors, practitioners, etc, with the tools to effectively self-organise and take responsibility for our own mobilisation;   Statistics, specifically MBI’s supported by the theoretical work of Will Hopkins and the application of this work by Martin Buchheit, as numbers are nothing until we give them meaning, with MBI’s giving them meaning in a relative, useful context. The likes of yourself Rob, and I include Adam Spence and other keen, creative, questioning, on-the-ground practitioners,  these are the people from whom I trust to go to, to pose questions and get a range of excellent answers.

3) What is your particular area of interest in sport?  

Within the world of sports medicine and exercise science, my current interest lies in putting together teams and processes that support the maximisation of the athletes abilities. Attempting to optimise our work to get the most pertinent information on the athlete so we can individualise as much as we can. This is a rather wide view, I know, but an athlete is a complex system, and as such reducing an athlete to A:C load ratio data points, wellness scores, HR data, etc is far to simplistic and will fail at the highest level. We have to move towards understanding these data points within the context of performance and life, which includes psycho-social, medical, physical, and everything else in between. I’m a far way off where I would like to be on this but its what keeps me leaping out of bed very morning excited to go to work.

4) How do you think this particular area applies to youth athletes? 

Its critical to youth sports. Growth and maturation is complicated by the cognitive-psycho-social-physical aspects that underpin growth and maturation. As such we need specialist practitioners who understand this breath of information, and can account for it in their coaching process and their programming. Youth athletes change all the time and as such it’s a complicated jigsaw that is constantly evolving so we have to be dynamic in a different way to those working with adults, ie 18+. Only last night I was observing some coaching being delivered by our excellent undergraduate Student Placement Assistant Coaches and  witnessed in a small group of 6 U14 athletes and the need for 6 completely different coaching processes, a range of cues, different relationship status’ between coach-athlete, and athlete-athlete, need for physical performance differentiation per athlete, etc. The coaches did brilliantly, and we had a great post-session review, but it highlighted the need for specialist ‘senior’ (experienced and knowledgeable!) coaches at this age.

5) What is the best piece of advice you’ve received as an athlete or coach?

Love what you do, and do it for the right reasons.  Why separate what you love, from what you do, given that we spend most of our adult life doing that activity.

6) What advice would you give to coaches working with youth athletes? 

Become the best paediatric S&C coach you can possibly be and don’t necessarily use that population to ‘get promoted’; you are doing serious work at the most impactful point in a young athletes career. Working with more senior teams should not necessarily be seen as the Holy Grail for our practice nor proof that it validates our abilities, there is massive scope for specialist practitioners within the foundation and youth age groups. A good S&C working in the foundation and youth age groups can have a significant impact on both an athletes career, and on a young person’s love of activities and as such future health, ie self-confidence, continued participation, healthy lifestyle, team work, work ethic etc.

To this point, I do believe that institutions need to accommodate the growth in youth sport S&C with specialist modules/pathways in both S&C Science and Sport Science degrees. It’s a huge hole that no one I’m aware of has been / is being addressed, yet the FA is investing a lot of money in growth and maturation, as is rugby, and traditional growth and maturation sports such as gymnastics etc are now more aware of its impact on their athletes. With schools now investing in S&C there is a need for specialist practitioners, and it’s the obvious growth area for future S&C coaches to make a living.

7) Can you recommend any particular resources for personal development?

Get a mentor! Someone you trust who has the ability to critique and ask great questions. They do not necessarily have to be in S&C, but must have the ability to “ask the difficult questions”, challenge you and encourage you to reflect. Mentors are for a specific time/requirement in your personal/professional life so you should find you work through mentors over an extended period of time but on reflection you discover they were appropriate for that time in your life.

8) Where can people find out more about you and your work?

I don’t tweet much, but you can find me on @GriffPerfTrain  as I would rather fly under the radar; there are some very good practitioners out there so the industry is well served, assuming you sift through the ‘weaker’ practitioners! We are aiming to begin publishing applied work over the next 12 months. Its important for us to critique our practice here at the club and see if we can tweak and adjust practice. This will only happen by putting ourselves out there.

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Author: Athletic Evolution

Providing best practice in the athletic development and coaching of youth athletes.

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